The UK government on Tuesday confirmed that foreign doctors, including from India, whose visas are set to expire before October this year will get an automatic extension for one year as they battle the coronavirus pandemic for the country's National Health Service (NHS).
The extension, announced by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, will apply to around 2,800 migrant doctors, nurses and paramedics employed by the NHS whose visa is due to expire before October 1.
"Doctors, nurses and paramedics from all over the world are playing a leading role in the NHS's efforts to tackle coronavirus and save lives. We owe them a great deal of gratitude for all that they do," said Patel.
"I don't want them distracted by the visa process. That is why I have automatically extended their visas free of charge for a further year, the Indian-origin minister said.
The free of charge extension will also apply to their family members, demonstrating how valued overseas NHS staff are to the UK, the Home Office said.
To get more doctors and nurses on the frontline, the restriction on the amount of hours student nurses and doctors can work in the NHS has also been lifted.
On top of these changes, pre-registered overseas nurses who are currently required to sit their first skills test within three months and to pass the test within eight months, will now have this deadline extended to the end of the year. This will give overseas nurses more time to pass their exams, whilst they spend the immediate term working on the frontline.
Trainee doctors and nurses will also not be limited by the number of hours they can work in the NHS during term time, the Home Office said.
The extension to NHS visas will not only be fee-free and automatic but also exempt from the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS).
The annual IHS, which was recently further hiked, has been branded as "unfair" by Indian doctors because they already pay their taxes.
"We believe that this surcharge is discriminatory and unfair, as the overseas workers are already paying their due share of National Insurance contributions, superannuation and income tax," the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) said in its letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson just last week.
"We request you to remove the health surcharge with immediate effect. The NHS has been in a workforce crisis for several years, but now with the COVID-19 epidemic, there has never been a worse time for an over-strained service, and we require all the help we can get to meet the challenges, read the letter, signed by BAPIO President Ramesh Mehta, chair Dr JS Bamrah and Secretary Professor Parag Singhal.
The latest move could be seen as a sign that the UK government may be having a rethink on the surcharge, hiked from 400 pounds to 624 pounds per year and aimed at boosting NHS funds, being imposed on medics working for the health service.